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Ben Werdmuller

Open morning pages: the social graph is not what it says it is

5 min read

I know I'm misusing Sartre here, but hell isn't other people. Hell is exactly the opposite.

The world's most soundproof room is somewhere in Minneapolis. You walk in, and suddenly all you have is what's in your head: the sound of your heartbeat, the sound of your breathing, the little swishing noises of the fluids running around your mouth and your stomach, and your thoughts.

It drives people crazy. People go mad.

We're not designed to be by ourselves. We evolved in groups, and all of our systems are optimized for this. As a result, when the group dynamic breaks down and we find ourselves living alone, it's not just that we get sick - we're significantly more likely to die. Loneliness is more deadly than obesity, even in America. The good news, I suppose, is that if you're tucking into that pint of ice cream because you feel sad and alone, the ice cream itself is not the most unhealthy part of the situation - and if it makes you a little happier, so be it. Tuck in.

We're hard-wired for company, which is one of the ways that the little lightboxes we hold in our hands are so addictive. We want social validation. Post a photo, get some likes - hey, that's a tiny dopamine rush. And then it goes away, and you want another one, so you do it again. And again. And again.

People who are already predisposed to feeling sad need even more of this dopamine boost, so it's not necessarily a surprise that people with depression or low self-esteem are more likely to post to social media. As a world-reknowned social software expert put it to me this week, "the broken people are the early adopters".

I've not just been an early adopter, but I've actually made it my career to build platforms that connect people. I'm not sure what that says about me. Actually, that's a lie: I have an inkling.

The problem, as most of us know by now, is that social technology is not the same thing as really being social. Getting feedback on a selfie, a link you shared, or even a piece of writing like this one, is not the same as getting support in real life. To your brain, it feels a little bit like it's the same thing. But it's not; it's junk food validation.

That's not to say that social media isn't useful. Obviously it is; it's how most of us get our news, and those baby photos from your cousin definitely have a social value. Those things are special. But it's best seen, and used, as an enabler of social experiences. An event on Facebook leads to a party in real life. A link you share leads to a conversation over a pint. A quick IM leads to a hug. When the Facebook chat is the party, or the conversation happens in the comments section, or the instant message is the hug, we lose so much of the value of having a network of people. I mean, it's better than nothing. But only just.

In the business, we call the network of friends that you maintain "the social graph". But the social graph isn't actually the social graph: it's a network of subscriptions. If anything, it's a vague interest graph. I'm interested in what Margaret Atwood shares and writes about, but we're unlikely to hang out. We're not friends; I'm just curious about what she has to say. This is true of many of our online connections, whethere they're with celebrities or people we went to school with: we're interested, but we're not best buddies. We're not even pint buddies.

The whole of the Internet is a vapourware graph: something that looks vaguely like a graph of social connections, but isn't. We've redefined "social". Knowing that the whole thing is just a delivery mechanism - a machine for bringing us more content, products and people we're interested in via relevant connections - means that we can use it to be more informed. It works wonderfully for that. But we shouldn't mistake our friends page for friends.

All of these things can be used to maintain friendships, too. I wouldn't know what was going on in the lives of a lot of people I care about if it wasn't for Facebook, and you can infer a lot from the links they share and the photos they post. But it's still not the same as being in the pub with them. It's still not the same as properly catching up over a meal.

You might say this is obvious, but is it? If we turn our devices off for a second, are our lives richer with people and conversations?

Or are we slowly going mad in the silence of our own thoughts, without even knowing it?